The board members:
Executive Director, chairperson, 1987–
Let’s start by learning how to disagree, says Hanna Nurminen
Kone Foundation Executive Director and Chair Hanna Nurminen had to move out into the country in order to start changing a country. In this series we chat with the members of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees about their takes on boldness.
”Being bold means tackling issues head-on and saying things others are afraid to say. Or maybe it’s not, wait a minute…”
Hanna Nurminen stops mid-sentence and wants to take it all back. Her mouth is often quicker than her brain, she says. Usually the outspoken Nurminen enjoys a good, spirited debate, but now the Kone Foundation Chair of the board would like to shape her thoughts carefully for once.
This doesn’t last long. Before she can arrive at a perfect definition of boldness, lively Nurminen is off again, praising her analytical and thoughtful sister and foundation vice-chair Ilona Herlin.
”I admire her ability to deliberate before taking a strong stand on something. I just lash out spontaneously and usually regret it afterwards,” laughs Nurminen, who is so close to her sister she considers Ilona her true life partner.
Have the courage to do what’s right
Luckily the chairwoman, who recently turned sixty, knows how to embrace her impatience. Without the ability to make quick decisions, she would probably never have become the influential figure in Finland’s art scene she is today. Were it not for her short fuse, she might never have abandoned a career in academia and donated most of her fortune to advancing science, or left city life in Helsinki for a completely different universe – a farmhouse in rural western Finland. Maybe, then, instead of impatience one should really talk about Nurminen being a person of action. In the 1980s, Merimasku, her new home, was a conservative, even stuffy little village with a strict social hierarchy. It took a few life lessons on both sides for the heiress from Helsinki to find her place.
Despite initial struggles, Nurminen refused to give up, and fought to become a real part of the community. Once she’d carved a space out for herself, she started to work on improving her surroundings. After being the town’s part-time culture secretary, she moved on to produce arts events and lead EU projects. And one day, on a completely normal grocery shopping trip, the Nurminens happened to drive into the yard of an abandoned manor that had formerly been used as a centre for agricultural research. The newly minted Kone Foundation Chair renovated the Saari manor into an artists’ residence with an office for herself.
Taking risks means possibly making mistakes
Nurminen is the first to admit that supporting the arts and sciences is extremely difficult.
”It’s something I think about constantly. Are we directing money and support to the right projects? Can we be sure that our risk-taking won’t lead to undesirable developments in art and research?”
Regardless of this occasional but healthy self-doubt, boldness will remain the main theme of Kone Foundation. During Nurminen’s term, the foundation has given strong support to the margins, in both art and science. There are two very good reasons for this: mainstream opinions and concepts have to be questioned, and there’s always something new and valuable to be found on the outer edges. Without different shades of grey, we’ll only have room for a single truth, Nurminen says.
”In the recent Finnish elections, most of the talk was completely irrelevant and circumspect. What we need now more than ever is a profound, even complex discussion on issues like inequality, the reasons behind it, and what it can lead to.”
Learn to listen to the opposition without rage
That discussion would improve greatly if people could only disagree in a civilized, non-aggressive manner, Nurminen thinks. She calls for hard talk on difficult issues, such as the possible risks connected to ever-expanding digitalization, to balance out all the cheap populism and overly simplified bullet-point lists so popular at the moment. In her own realm, the philanthropist has already conversed with the Greek gods today. The artists in residence at Saari manor have started the morning with a feast for Plato, where Aphrodite, Apollon and Dionysus debated the nature of beauty. When asked about what she plans to do next, Nurminen has an answer ready.
”Rake up the leaves in the yard.”
But after that?
”I’d like to do my job in a way that ensures that the Kone Foundation can support fresh and uncompromising work in arts and sciences in the future, too.”
Being bold means…having the courage to disagree. That’s what we’re missing in Finland. For instance, in academia, the fear of losing face is so strong that nobody really dares to question mainstream science.
Being bold is not…about being bold for the sake of being noticed. Politicians saying that we need to make bold moves to save the economy means nothing.
Hanna Nurminen, born in 1955, was the first female member of the Board of the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees in 1988. Appointed Chair in 2003 after father Pekka Herlin passed away.
MA in Finnish language. Master’s thesis on the dialect of Häme.
Married to farmer Jaakko Nurminen, mother of two.
Prefers home life over sports and excercise. Enjoys things like changing throw pillow cases, arranging flowers and bustling about her kitchen.
Docent, vice-chairperson 1995–
It takes boldness to be quiet, says Ilona Herlin
Ilona Herlin is a linguist who thinks people should be able to be just as vocal or quiet as they please. She prefers foundations to shut up about themselves and to amplify the voice of thinkers and doers instead.
”If this is supposed to be about me, we should probably rethink the whole boldness theme. I’m really not that bold”, Ilona Herlin says, completely pleasantly. She hasn’t even sat down yet, and we’re already turning the entire interview about being bold around.
The key mission of the Kone Foundation is to support bold initiatives in arts and science, but vice-chair Herlin admits that she almost gets annoyed by all the talk about being bold. She’d much prefer foundations to focus on the work they were originally intended to do – supporting good things in society – than building a brand for themselves.
If being bold doesn’t cut it for Herlin, what should we be striving for?
”Tolerance, pluralism, and letting different alternatives flourish. Like using more than just one kind of infinitive”, the linguist laughs.
Look outside your own bubble
Dressed in a knit hoodie, coffee cup in hand, Ilona Herlin doesn’t really seem like a fiery preacher. She happens, however, to be an exceptionally sharp observer. She always listens intently before forming a well-thought-out and carefully worded, poignant opinion.
A little over a year ago, a rather tempestuous storm arose in the teacups of Finnish linguist circles. Herlin had published a study on the controversial Finnish infinitive form ”alkaa tekemään” (which means ”to start doing something”), an age-old national pet grammar peeve. The more prim and proper form, taught in schools accross the country for decades, was always ”alkaa tehdä”. Using the other was seen as a clear sign of bad manners.
The Finnish Language Board put Herlin’s study results to a vote, and passed ”alkaa tekemään” as an acceptable form with four votes in favour and three against. The vote was exceptionally close.
Recently Herlin gave a lecture on the subject – which also ended in heated debate. Some in the audience seemed positively aggravated by Herlin’s results. The seasoned scholar was amazed by the reaction. Not everyone was as liberal when it comes to language as her closest colleagues were.
”It was an eye-opening experience. Some of us seem to have a very idealized concept of language: that we all should try to conserve language into some frozen, unchanging state.”
Herlin doesn’t want to judge anyone, but can’t help but be amused. Language is in constant state of flux, just like culture. Kids raised on screens instead of books will no doubt have an even more profound impact on its use, Herlin points out. As a researcher, she is excited by change.
”People can talk however they like, for all I care. The more I do research, the more liberal I become.”
Things were different growing up. The bourgeois Herlin family had strict rules about language: expressions such as the infamous ”alkaa tekemään” were forbidden.
”The only rule I have for my own kids is not to say huh”, Herlin says.
Even the quiet ones can blow you away
Herlin has the advantage of being able to look at society from various different viewpoints. As a major shareholder of Cargotec, she’s up to date on what’s happening in the world of heavy industries. On the Kone Foundation’s Board of Trustees she gets to dip her feet into cutting-edge science and research. No wonder that public debate can often seem a bit narrow-minded to her. She feels there should be more room for humanities, social sciences, and discussion of values instead of constant talk about the economy.
The vice-chair knows that every year there’s more and more research competing for funding. In a tolerant and pluralist society it’s important to also fund the kind of research that produces results that can’t instantly be measured with excel sheets. The Kone Foundation prides itself with funding work that can seem weird, even completely bonkers sometimes. At the same time the Foundation gives money to answer to dire needs in society, such as the recent Is Finland Becoming Polarised? projects.
”Having scientific and artistic freedom in society is incredibly valuable. There are so many completely unassuming Finnish humanities researchers, for instance, who are working on the most amazing, surprising things, and they never make a fuss of themselves”, Herlin gushes.
”A truly bold foundation could use its influence to shine a spotlight on the work of some of the more introverted researchers out there.”
Being bold means…doing what you need to do, regardless of whether it happens to be hip or trendy or not.
Being bold is not…about racking your brain about how things look like on the outside. It’s not bold to make up trendy mantras just for the sake of branding yourself.
Ilona Herlin, born 1965, is vice-chairperson on the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees. She is also docent of Finnish language at the University of Helsinki. Her next topic of research will be on the first-person plural pronoun we. Herlin is part of one of the semifinalist teams in the Helsinki Challenge science competition, held to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the University of Helsinki. A mother of three, Herlin relaxes by weeding her garden.
”Gardening is good for you.”
Master of Economic Sciences, Master of Arts, board member 2010–
Be curious about novelty
Minna Nurminen does not have to spend long thinking up examples of boldness. She encounters it every day in her job. Nurminen teaches Finnish to those who have moved to Finland from abroad.
“Starting a new life in a foreign country requires courage, even if it’s not a free choice,” Nurminen states.
“Creating a social network from nothing and learning a foreign language is not easy. You are continuously outside of your comfort zone.”
Nurminen admires the perseverance of her students in seeking a new direction in life. The teacher corrects a common misconception: the hardest thing is not learning the language.
“The reputation of Finnish as a difficult language is due to how different it is compared to many other European languages. If your mother tongue is Somali or Chinese, it is just as easy or difficult to learn Finnish as it is to learn French, for example.”
Be prepared to change your opinion
For 33-year-old Nurminen, the youngest member of the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees, language is a job and object of research.
“I remember how already as a child I was reading Eero Kiviniemi’s book ‘Rakkaan lapsen monet nimet’ (The Many Names of a Beloved Child), which we had at home,” Nurminen laughs.
The fact that her mother Hanna Nurminen, chairperson of The Kone Foundation board of trustees, and aunt Ilona Herlin, vice-chairperson, are in the same field has probably also had its influence. “Language has always been much discussed in our family and I remember following their careers already in my youth,” Nurminen recounts.
Originally, however, she was meant to become an economist.
“It might sound silly, but although I’ve always been interested in language, after upper secondary school I felt like I had to get some “real” profession. I thought that at least I don’t want to be a teacher or researcher.”
Nurminen went to Turku School of Economics, graduated, and was even employed in the commercial sector until the Finnish language studies undertaken earlier lured her back into studying. She finished her master’s degree in Finnish language at Turku University in 2014.
Gradually, a career as a teacher and researcher began to feel more tempting.
She feels that her job allows her to perfectly combine the logic of language and being with people. In her thesis, Nurminen investigated how bi- and multilingual families living in Finland pick names for their children. She is now expanding the same topic into a doctoral thesis.
“I noticed that for me, the meaning of work is important: as a researcher you can solve and research interesting things, and as a teacher you get to help people.”
Criticize and listen
The Kone Foundation has the opportunity to make bold funding decisions more freely than the public sector, for example. Now, during large cuts in education and research, it feels even more important than before.
The Kone Foundation plans to continue different kinds of focused theme applications alongside the usual grant applications. The most recent theme application was the Is Finland Becoming Polarized programme, which was meant to increase understanding of growing inequality in society.
“What is important is that you can approach themes through different fields of research, allowing surprising viewpoints and diverse knowledge to be gained.”
Nurminen thinks equally important is improving the position of grant recipients and researchers. When public funding for science, art and research is cut, increasingly more pressure piles up on foundations too.
Learn foreign languages and you will understand the world better
Societal and political discussion is currently marked by conversations revolving around economic gains. Nurminen wishes for more discussion where something else would also be valued, such as wellbeing, happiness, or say the social relationships between people. She is concerned about increasing racism and hopes that it would be opposed more boldly.
“Things should be viewed from a global perspective and a humane point of view; to see people as people.”
In her work, she has seen how those moving to Finland are often very motivated to learn the language and find their place in society. If this were made easier, everyone would benefit from it.
In practice, allowing people moving into the country to work would speed up integration. Loosening the strict Finnish language requirements could be one very concrete factor.
An interesting observation that Nurminen brings up is the advantage that multilingualism provides for everyone. She is worried about the decrease in language learning in schools, and that English has risen so clearly to be the main language. Knowing other languages is also important.
“And you don’t have to learn all languages perfectly, for the various worldviews offered by different languages are also important,” says Nurminen, who has just started learning introductory Spanish.
“Language involves a huge amount of different things!” Nurminen lights up. “With different languages, you can look at the world in different ways, from different points of view. Each language also opens up new thinking and culture.”
What is bold? Being critical and questioning things. On the other hand, boldness is also listening to others and being open to new things, as well as being prepared to change your own conceptions and opinions.
What is not bold? Short-sightedness, selfishness, and indifference.
Minna Nurminen, born in 1982, was elected as member of the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees in 2010.
MA in Finnish Language and MSc in Economics. Her thesis in Finnish Language studied name choices in bi- and multilingual families.
Hobbies include reading, jogging and travelling.
Professor, board member 2011–2018
Janne Kotiaho: Boldness comes from trial and error – and having the option to fail
Janne Kotiaho is frustrated. The Professor of Ecology at the University of Jyväskylä has just got back from a meeting about a mire conservation programme that will not be implemented. The decision to make mire conservation voluntary basically means three years’ work going down the drain. According to Kotiaho, the main problem is that in the future, landowners will be the only people to make decisions on nature conservation. Not many of us own land.
“It seems as if no one dares to question whether voluntary-based nature conservation really is a good thing.”
This provides an excellent segue into boldness, a theme very important to the Kone Foundation. Kotiaho has promised to think in advance about what being bold means to him, but the professor still falls deep into thought over his glass of red wine.
“I’d say being bold means doing what you believe to be right, regardless of peer pressure. Just being sure that this is the right thing to do to me is being bold.”
To Kotiaho, trusting his own vision means daring to question the status quo at the workplace. Or having the courage to ask one more sceptical question at the end of a long meeting that’s already gone on all day, when everyone else is just hoping for a consensus and cast evil glances at you for asking.
Kotiaho keeps referring to open dialogue and the need to be frank. We need a lot more of both, he says.
“To avoid being quiet too often. Silence leads to nobody questioning existing half-truths.”
Kotiaho himself is living proof of that someone.
Dreams change – thank goodness
Kotiaho has a long-standing dream to awaken people to the disaster facing our planet.
He himself had an environmental awakening in the early 2000s, when he agreed to supervise two theses on forest tending and rehabilitation. Before, he’d been studying mainly evolutional biology and the complex mating habits of spiders. But in the very beginning, Kotiaho was supposed to become a vet.
“I read James Herriot’s books, which were just so disarming”, he confesses.
An avid lepidopterist, Kotiaho took the entrance exam to veterinary school four times, but didn’t get in.
“Thank goodness! I would have been so bored with vaccinating cats.”
Instead, Kotiaho ended up at the biology department at the University of Jyväskylä in 1990 to observe both how parent bugs care for their offspring as well as the drumming activity of spider males. Now he’s a professor there.
Working on his master’s thesis got Kotiaho interested in research. His professor at the time, the late Rauno Alatalo got enthusiastic about his thesis subject. Alatalo’s encouraging feedback gave the crucial push toward a career in academia.
“Observing animal behaviour and drawing conclusions from it was just so fascinating.”
Change requires open dialogue and collaboration
Kotiaho sees moving from evolutionary biology to environmental questions as a major career leap. In addition to switching from one research angle to another, he says the last few years have woken him up to the importance of science making an impact in society.
“I no longer spend all my time focusing on asking and answering a single question. Now I try to network and make a difference in various working groups, such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.”
Kotiaho’s main source of frustration stems from when the scientific community tries to move things forward together, but crash with politics, and the common goal gets lost.
Even in spite of that one can tell he has found his calling.
The latest challenge in this particular field started recently and will end in three years. Kotiaho is one of the hundred authors of the UN-led IPBES report that charts global biodiversity and the state of our planet. When you ask him about what the conclusion will be like, he has a simple answer.
Kotiaho is driven by a desire to open people’s eyes. We’re doomed if we don’t do anything, he says. He’d also like to encourage young researchers to step out of their offices and participate in public life, so that academic knowledge wouldn’t stay trapped in universities but would influence policy-making and raise discussion on real subjects.
“Being too busy is just a state of mind. We have time for everything.”
Say what you think, not what you expect others want to hear
Boldness is something Kotiaho, who sits on the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees, also values when it comes to grant applications. He knows how easy it would be to resort to the traditional mindset of only funding safe projects with predictable outcomes, which is why he sees making bold choices in picking unconventional projects as one of the main merits of the Kone Foundation.
“Making decisions is hard. Making bold decisions is even harder,” Kotiaho ponders.
“I sometimes wonder whether I have the courage, as a researcher, to say that this completely strange and bizarre research plan seems bold. It might fail, but we should still fund it.”
He attempts to clarify the thought, despite not being completely certain he can form it correctly.
“If we want to know about phenomena emerging from the margins of society, we can’t quite pin them down beforehand. The aim isn’t to push mainstream into the margins, but to bring new things from there to the mainstream. It’s bold to let people experiment.”
Kotiaho hates empty phrases, so he has two pieces of advice for anyone applying for a grant.
“Surprise me by writing what you actually think, not what you think I want to hear.”
Being bold means… to do what you feel is right without giving in to peer pressure. To have the ability to fail.
Boldness is not… about going with the mainstream and doing what everyone expects you to do.
Janne Kotiaho, born in 1969, Member of the Kone Foundation Board of Trustees since 2011.
Family: married with three daughters, 39 sheep, two lambs, turkeys and chickens.
Wrote his PhD thesis on mate choice benefits.
Hobbies: the Kotiaho farm.
Professor, board member 2014–2019
Markku Lonkila: Boldness is perseverance
What happens when fifty million people input personal information into a service such as Facebook in an authoritarian country? During the summer Markku Lonkila, Professor of Sociology at Jyväskylä University, has been thinking about the dual role of social media in Russia. This is leading to an article with the cooperation of Russian colleagues.
“Social media can simultaneously help organize opposition protests and function as a tool of state control. We investigated how the surveillance of Russian Internet tightened after the 2011 and 2012 protests against Putin.”
Russia, social networks, social movements, international comparisons and social media are central keywords in Lonkila’s career as a researcher.
Comparative research tackles the things we hold self-evident
An important step in Lonkila’s journey as a researcher was taking part in a project led by professor Risto Alapuro in the beginning of the 1990s, which compared the networks of everyday life in several European countries. His doctoral thesis was finished in the same flurry.
“It was a wonderful experience to get to speak with professors and researchers from different cultures in an international environment. Risto’s support and the example he has set have been decisive in my career.”
In his thesis, Lonkila compared the social networks of teachers in Helsinki and Saint Petersburg. Russian habits were surprising at first, but as the research progressed, his attention shifted in the other direction.
“For example, the nuclear family which feels natural to us and the sociality built around it began to seem less obvious.”
Indeed, one of the advantages of comparative research is in its ability to undo stereotypes and the things we take as self-evident. For example, Finns are often seen as work-oriented and Russians as more family-oriented.
“Our research showed that Russian teachers had considerably more ties through work than Finnish teachers. The importance of work and the workplace in the social life of teachers in Saint Petersburg was very different to Helsinki.”
Specialization should not be taken too far
Lonkila was appointed professor at Jyväskylä University two years ago.
“Administrative issues and teaching easily take up all the time in the work of a professor. You have to fight to get time for research.”
Amid cuts in resources and pressures to increase the distinctiveness and profile of universities, appreciation for The Kone Foundation’s funding policy has continued to grow.
“The world of Finnish science would be different without The Kone Foundation.”
Lonkila thinks it is important to have funders whose decisions aren’t influenced solely by universities’ strategic priorities.
“The excessive specialization and profile raising of universities can lead to the disappearance of healthy competition in research. A faculty which has gained a monopoly position in their own field will regress from a lack of challenges.”
Boldness can have a playful dimension
Boldness is easily associated with heroic deeds, where a valiant knight kills the dragon and saves the princess. Adapted to the scientific world, the hero of the story is usually a genius male researcher who makes a discovery worthy of the Nobel Prize.
Instead of isolated heroic acts, Lonkila wants to discuss everyday boldness.
“Simply consciously choosing a career as a researcher is bold in these times.”
Similarly, it is bold to passionately focus on an area that interests you, come up with a new viewpoint for a thoroughly studied topic, or ask entirely novel questions.
Boldness often has a playful dimension. It is brave to connect previously separate issues to each other, creatively.
“It is bold to calmly and slowly do your own thing despite terrifying pressures. Boldness is perseverance.”
Markku Lonkila, born in 1956, is a member of The Kone Foundation Board of Trustees and Professor of Sociology at Jyväskylä University. In his thesis, Lonkila compared the everyday social networks of teachers in Helsinki and Saint Petersburg.
He is currently researching political and social activism in Russian social media.
His hobbies include music and reading. Legend has it that one time Lonkila was so impressed by Isaak Babel’s short story The Sin of Jesus, that copies of it had appeared on his colleagues’ desks in the morning.
Artist, researcher, Professor in Artistic Research at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy, board member 2019–
Read Tuija’s interview here.
Deputy member Vesa Koivisto
Docent, deputy member 2005–